Heide Museum of Art, Melbourne, Australia
until 21 July 2013
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
Fiona Hall: Big Game Hunting at Heide Museum of Modern Art is one of the most impressive exhibitions in Australia of a living artist for many years. As one of the country’s leading artists, Fiona Hall’s work is challenging and pertinent occupying a political interface between culture and nature. Curator Kendrah Morgan asserts: “Hall is acutely aware that as organic beings in a relationship with the world around us, what we do to nature is in effect what we are doing to ourselves. Treating nature as different, as the presumed other is just an excuse for our abuse of it. On this basis she calls us to account for our actions.”2
Fiona Hall’s work addresses the pressures of globalisation upon the environment through the transformation of mundane man-made materials into a new genus of organic creature forms. Fall Prey features a menagerie of trophy-style sculptures of endangered species from the United Nations Red List, using the fabric of military camouflage. Each species is made primarily from “fabric ripped from military camouflage uniforms worn by the nation of each species’ habitat. The skeletal structure of the garment which remains after most of the fabric has been removed [is] then included in the work.”3 Created to resemble over-sized traditional taxidermy species, the use of fabrics from post-modern society (army surplus, dollar bills), the macabre works signify the devastating impact on the natural environment created by modern society. The damage to delicate habitats through commercial political expediency is now daily news, yet Fiona Hall has made works highlighting these issues since the 1970s. Speaking about Shot Through (2012), for Documenta in Germany last year (2012) she refers to the double meaning of the title as literally being killed and also vanishing. Particular materials endow further conceptual depth to a range of contemporary issues: globalisation, consumerism, colonialism and natural history. “I don't consider an ‘artistic perspective’ during the creation of the work. The important thing for me is to consider carefully the concepts I'm working with, and to express this in the work with power and resonance which I hope will connect with the viewer. If I'm successful in that regard then perhaps the work also has artistic merit.”4
A survey of Fiona Hall’s career requires the inclusion of a complement of conceptually aligned works. Bark cloth paintings, video and sculptural pieces were inspired by a 2011 expedition to the unique marine environment of the Kermadec Trench on the Pacific Rim of Fire. Barbarians at the Gate (2010), an installation of innovatively re-designed beehives produced for the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, and a suite of large etchings celebrating the flora and fauna of Arnhem Land produced as a consequence of her participation in the Djalkiri Project. All reveal Hall’s working methods, the value she places on finely crafted work and also her background. Fiona Hall grew up in Oatley, one of Sydney’s southern suburbs, close to bush land. Her mother was a scientist who encouraged her daughter’s interest in art and must have played a part in the development of a forensic approach to collecting, research and cataloguing of objects and the processing of ideas. As an art student in Sydney she was drawn to photography using it to document the proliferation of native plant species in Leura, New South Wales, and the different textures on Bondi Beach. David Hansen points out, “One of Fiona Hall’s best-known early works is Leura, New South Wales (1974), a black-and-white photograph of two intersecting floral fields—the baroque leaf-and-bloom scrollwork of a tapestry-upholstered 1930s couch and the flat-pattern foliage of the woven-wool carpet on which it sits. It is a curious, tantalising work…. But what is of particular interest here is the work’s prescience or latency with regard to Hall’s own later work. Leura, New South Wales’s two central and interlinked features – botanical textile pattern and perceptual ambiguity – are the fundamental elements of military camouflage, a theme which was to become a central preoccupation of the artist during the 2000s.”5 The notion of “trouble in paradise” was addressed from the early 1970s. Jason Smith points out: “Environmental fragilities and the impact of human activity on land and in oceans, and on the order of the world at large, have been central concerns of her art for two decades. Hall is conspicuous and important because she zeroed in on tough subjects long before they were engaged by political strategists and became the preoccupying anxieties of wider society”.6
Travel to Europe when Hall was a student was de rigeur for most young artists in Australia; Hall based herself in London and worked as assistant to English photographer, Fay Godwin, and visited museums, galleries and libraries there. Her first solo show was in London at Creative Camera Gallery, 1977. In 1978 she held her first Australian solo show at the Church Street Photography Centre in Melbourne. She studied in New York at the Visual Studies Workshop under Nathan Lyons. In the 1980s Hall had seven solo exhibitions. The titles of her suites of work indicate her broad interests: Morality Dolls – the Seven Deadly Sins (1984); Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy (1988); Paradisus terrestris (1989) and in 1990 Words, which Julie Ewington describes, “signifies a break from Hall’s journey through darkness, chaos and distress, into self-acceptance and composure”.7 In Paradisus Terrestris her connection with nature and plant forms is evident; in Fern Garden (1998) commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia, she used one of Australia’s most ancient plants, the Dicksonia Antarctica to create a womb-like installation.
Leaf Litter (1999–2003) used paper currency on which she painted life-size portraits of leaves from the country of origin to make the point that money cannot buy everything. Linking the species of leaf with a specific currency to denote location is taken further in Fall Prey in the use of military camouflage patterning to denote the country of origin of the creatures, which face extinction. Previously in Understorey (1999–2004), Hall used glass beads (the currency of colonization) threaded onto wire to create three-dimensional objects depicting elements of plant and human material: as Morgan describes “an early vitrine work [that] brings together ‘fragments of a beautiful, fragile, transient realm, and in the way of science, traps them in the filing system (morgue) of the museum display cabinet’. The case contains a raft of exquisite beaded sculptures of plant and animal matter – from exotic blooms to bleached bones – that link botanical history to cultural and political issues in a ‘tropical memento mori’”.8
Military uniforms and paper currency become critical shorthand for the armed might and commercial power deployed with glib disregard for environmental destruction or spirituality. They become a conceptual and aesthetic device to denote the complexity of the issues surrounding the future of the earth and of species within it: decimated habitats, battlefields, wasteland; human folly and greed are in turn exposed. Hansen describes the manner in which Fiona Hall’s work departs from the plethora of sensational but bland works of art in so many of the world fairs and biennales: “The sheer overwhelming, brutal, crippling scale of globalised culture and of the globalised (biennale) culture industry leaves little room for subtlety and ambiguity. The work of art is expected to attract attention with [the] initial [spectacle] of scale or image, medium or technique, then to deliver its message in a way that the viewer can readily absorb and comprehend, like and tweet before moving on to the next work, the next issue, the next meme. In Shot Through Hall delivers her conceptual payload with just such efficiency, her various imminent speciecides [sic] being sheeted home to the nation-states where the creatures originate. However, the military fabric is not in fact singular, but a complex if compact triple trope, which embodies conflict, plant ecology and disappearance. In her presentation of camouflage as this three-headed allegorical device, we can begin to see both the distinctiveness and the distinction of Hall’s practice: its multivalence, its vegetal energy, its reaching branches and [rhizoidal] meanders, its wondering, wandering, ambitious and generous expansiveness. Or to shift to another corner of the camouflage triad, she is not content with the one clear shot, but employs the rapid fire of a fully automatic assault weapon”.9
The Kermadec series marks a shift in the artist’s agenda to the unique marine environment of the Kermadec Trench on the Pacific Rim of Fire. A ten kilometre-deep “cradle of life” teeming with biodiversity it is now under threat from the mining and fishing industries. Hall joined the exhibition in 2011 with eight other artists, the New Zealand Minister of Conservation and staff from the New Zealand Department of Conservation, on the naval vessel HMSNZ Otago. Curiously the New Zealand government wanted the artists et al to be present on the journey yet it has so far failed to sanction the Kermadec Trench as a marine reserve. The Kermadec oceanic region extends over 620,000 sq km, providing a safe haven for threatened species and deep-sea organisms that play a vital role in maintaining the health of the planet in its entirety. The Trench itself is in New Zealand waters, and is the second deepest trench on earth, where unique forms of life that do not require sunlight are supported. “A site of unparalleled geological and biological convergence and diversity, it is rich in gold and other precious natural resources—making it an obvious target for the mining companies—and equally bountiful in rare marine life, much of which is still unknown to science. For thousands of years the area has also served as an ocean highway for a wealth of species, such as tuna, sunfish, marlin, spotted black groper, sharks and endangered turtles and humpback whales. The region’s fishing potential is another inflammatory subject of dispute”.10
The long-submerged islands and peaks of volcanoes formed a vital role in the pre-historic diaspora of the Polynesian peoples. The HMSNZ Otago stopped for two days at Raoul Island, enabling the artists to explore, observe and record the natural paradise. The final destination point was Tonga where Fiona Hall began working with bark cloth: “[She] was shown by a Tongan woman how to prepare and paint on it using natural dyes and ochres. Bark cloth, known variously throughout the Pacific as ngatu, tapa, siapo and masi, is made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree that is sun-dried, soaked, and rhythmically beaten into strips. These are attached together with starch and by further pounding into huge panels, which are then decorated with dyes applied by painting, rubbing, stamping and stenciling. The process is a women’s cultural enterprise, and therefore aligned to Hall’s continued use of traditionally female vernacular crafts such as knitting, weaving and beading”.11 Skill and patience are central to Hall’s art practice, so it was inevitable that she would produce exquisite works in the new medium. It is the combination of skill and passionate intelligence that informed the works she produced on the Kermodec expedition:
The ocean is not quiet: new hunts are on, greedy for a kill. New breeds of corporate pirates have their spyglasses trained on the Kermadec treasure chest below. To them, it looks like a submerged bank vault: the volcano teeth have gold fillings. Lying in the sunlight on the deck on the surface of the sea, I shut my eyes to picture the volcanoes. Blood flows. Behind my eyelids I saw red.12
The agenda for the earlier trip to Blue Mud Bay in Arnhem Land was a close precedent to the Kermodec trip in terms of commitment to the unspoiled beauty and value of the land. Aboriginal culture was explored by artists of divergent cultural backgrounds: Fiona Hall’s resulting portfolio of six etchings, titled Burning Bright, responds to the native plants and animals of Blue Mud Bay, and the deep connections between country. Djalkiri: We are Standing on their names: Blue Mud Bay, (2009–2010) the group exhibition from the project continues to travel (until 2014). Blue Mud Bay in Northeast Arnhem Land is a bastion of Australian Aboriginal cultural and biological knowledge. It is linguistically diverse and biologically rich and is the home of the unanimously respected Yolngu clans. Blue Mud Bay is most famous for the momentous High Court decision in 2008 to give traditional owners exclusive rights over tidal waterways fringing Aboriginal Land.
Djalkiri: We are Standing on their names: Blue Mud Bay, (2009–2010) a cross-cultural project of major importance, involved nine Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, as well as scientists and printmakers and a back up team. Nomad Art Productions conceived and organised the project, which took place in the unspoiled environment of Blue Mud Bay in Arnhem Land. The five local artists from Arnhem Land, Djambawa Marawili AM (Australian Medal or Order of Australia), Marrirra Marawili, Marrnyula Mununggurr, Mulkun Wirrpanda and Liyawaday Wirrpanda, were joined by Fiona Hall from Adelaide, by John Wolseley from Melbourne, by the late Jörg Schmeisser from Canberra and by Judy Watson from Brisbane. They were joined by a number of workshop facilitators: Basil Hall (printmaker), Glenn Wightman (ethno-biologist), Professor Howard Morphy (anthropologist), Peter Eve (photographer), and Angus and Rose Cameron (curators and project managers). Hall wrote of her experience, emphasizing the need to learn from other cultures and societies and to preserve the Earth:
“The Blue Mud Bay community welcomed us to their country; as they showed us around they unfolded for us the living map of their land and sea, which charts Yolgnu culture and embodies Yolgnu ancestry. We learned that their homeland is a story place; it is the larder and the medicine chest, the almanac and vast encyclopedia. We saw that their sea and land and sky are home to many creatures, and learned they harbour sacred places where past and present are manifest, perpetually. The time when we visited was the lead-up to the Wet. The last of the burning was in progress, washing the land with fire in readiness for the rain. Some of the plants were already pushing out fresh new growth and bursting into flower, eager to get a head start. I felt that I could hear them singing out to the rains to hurry up and come. I learned at Blue Mud Bay that Yolgnu culture is a fluid one, with a deep knowledge of and respect for the source from which it flows. A tide of goodwill from the community there invited us to walk and sit together to create Djalkiri. In the slipstream of this collaboration our different worlds are flowing together, making ripples on the surface where our cultures meet. I think I see a shimmer on the horizon”.13
1. Fiona Hall, artist’s statement, Blue Mud Bay Project, Nomad Art Productions, 2010.
2. Kendrah Morgan, “Introduction”, Fiona Hall: Big Game Hunting, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2013, p. 10
3. Fiona Hall interviewed by Nicholas Forrest, Artinfo Australia, “Fiona Hall, Secrets of her Documenta Hunters Den’’ (http://www.blouinartinfo.com)
5. David Hansen, “Cryptoserendipitous Palimpsestery or Seeing the Wood from the Trees”, catalogue, op.cit., p.35.
6. Jason Smith, “Foreword”, ibid, p.7.
7. Julie Ewington, The Art of Fiona Hall, Piper Press, Sydney, 2005.
8. Morgan, op.cit., p.12 (quotes from Hall from Ewington, p.163).
9. Hansen, ibid, p.42.
10. Morgan, ibid, p.17.
11. Ibid, p.17.
12. Quoted ibid, p.16.
13. FH, Blue Mud Bay Project.